Jeeti, Kira, and Salakshana Pooni are 3 sisters from a nice Punjabi family who grew up in small town British Columbia in the 1970s. Their parents were so proud of their lives in Canada that they routinely sponsored family members as immigrants to Canada, and hosted them in their home. This often made for a very crowded house, one in which all these visiting relatives were to be respected and obeyed. It was this atmosphere that the little girls were sexually assaulted by a cousin. Having no understanding of sex, they nonetheless kept quiet, sensing that telling would only bring harm and punishment to themselves.
For many, many years the Pooni sisters kept their secret. It was only 12 years ago that they came forward, to both police and to their families. And it turns out they were right. Even as grown women, they felt ostracized, punished, shamed. The family frowned upon their confession and tried to silence them. Still, they spoke.
In Because We Are Girls, director Baljit Sangra explores how aspects of a beautiful and traditional culture could also breed such an ugly and deplorable thing. Because they were girls they were meant to be subservient. Because they were girls they were expected to be quiet. Because they were girls they were asked to keep a dirty secret that might harm their chances to make a successful marriage. Because they were girls they were not taken seriously.
Now, as women, raising girls of their own, the truth has been spoken. The film captures the many aspects of the fall-out, both legally, personally, and within the family. Sangra is an extremely capable filmmaker responsible for some truly stirring and evocative imagery, but the film’s strongest asset is the trio of strong sisters who floor us with their candid honesty. They are courageous in their truth, but also courageous in allowing themselves to be so raw, so exposed. A confrontation with their parents toward the end of the film is one of the most grueling, cathartic, genuine, emotional scenes I’ve ever seen on film.
There is no doubt that this kind of personal testimony will touch the many other survivors of sexual abuse; being brave emboldens others to be brave. But perhaps more importantly, this documentary will open some eyes – my 2 eyes, your 2 eyes, 10 or 20 or 200 eyes or perhaps thousands – and those are eyes that will never look away. Because of these women, some future girl or future girls, will be safe, will be protected. And I can’t imagine a documentary with a higher purpose than that.
Wednesday, May 1, 6:15 PM, Scotiabank Theatre 4
Thursday, May 2, 1:00 PM, Scotiabank Theatre 13
Friday, May 3, 6:00 PM, TIFF Bell Lightbox 2